Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Desert Mothers and Fathers

a desert cave near my retreat house


In the first few centuries after Jesus, Christianity was more like a "movement" than a formalized church. Following after the example of Jesus, those first "Christians" devoted themselves to live lives of compassion and bold generosity. Everyone shared a place of equal dignity in the movement.  Some of the first Christians lived together in community, combining their resources and sharing what they had with one another and with the poor and needy.

By the fourth century,  this bold "movement" of Jesus' followers had become institutionalized. The movement had become a church with a prescribed ritual,  hard and fast rules of acceptable behavior determining who belonged and who didn't belong, and a formalized hierarchy of "male" clergy and bishops who were seen as higher in importance than mere lay people in the lower ranks - a far cry from the original Jesus' movement.

In response to the institutionalization of the church, a group of men and women traveled out into the deserts of Egypt, Syria ad Gaza and they established little communities much like those first  communities of Christians. They went out into the desert to revive the Jesus' movement.  These early desert dwellers came to be known as the "desert mothers and fathers." 

They lived in caves like the ones just outside my retreat house. They prayed together, worked together and treated one another with compassion. Everyone was valued with equal dignity,  and hospitality for anyone who came their way was the ethic that governed their common life. 

I try to model my life out here in the desert after those ancient desert mothers and fathers. I am living at the fringes of the formal church and yet genuinely trying to live a life according to the model of Jesus. For me, this is a great place to be.

There are a number of "sayings" (words of wisdom) that  come from the desert mothers and fathers describing their common life. From time to time I will share some of these "sayings" in my postings from the retreat house.

I particularly like one "saying." It is also very expressive of the life of these desert ancestors: "When a leader of one community was asked how he dealt with any brother who fell asleep during public prayer, he replied, 'I put his head upon my knees and help him to rest.'" 

Be gentle with one another!


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